Andrea Riseborough (‘To Leslie’) on her marathon of prep to play ‘cycles of shame’

“The nomination has been such a helpful step into breaking through,” reflects Andrea Riseborough on her Independent Spirit Awards citation for her performance in “To Leslie.” The actress stars in the title role of the film as a mother from Texas who had won $190,000 in the lottery, but lost it all and her relationships to alcoholism; the film chronicles her recovery and ultimate reunion with her son, played by Owen Teague. For a small feature that the actress notes was shot in only 19 days, the recognition is “vital.” Watch our exclusive video interview above.

Riseborough also serves as an executive producer on “To Leslie.” She felt passionately about working on the project both in front of and behind the camera because Ryan Binaco’s “script was beautiful and it wasn’t sensational in any way, and it certainly wasn’t saccharine.” The actress shares that the screenwriter penned the film for his mother, who was the basis for the title character, and he “gave his mum what she couldn’t have in life… a sort of redemption.” Together with director Michael Morris, the executive producer was inspired by the 1970 movie “Wanda” by Barbara Loden because they wanted to make a film that would “just spend time with a human and to immerse yourself in their cycles of shame.”

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“We can all identify with disappointing the ones we love, feeling the shame of that, and then coping with it in a way that’s not necessarily healthy,” observes Riseborough of how the film touches on universal truths about life. Despite Leslie’s shortcomings and her addictions, the character shines through as “someone who’s vivacious and hilariously funny and wild and hedonistic and brilliant” and someone who just “finds it hard to live in this world that we have constructed.” The actress describes her character as either “full of temporary hope or deeply hopeless.”

Riseborough delivers a true tour-de-force performance as Leslie. We see the character at her lowest points — being kicked out of a motel, stealing money from her son’s friend, spending nights on the street, suffering from withdrawals — but we never lose sight of her humanity, her hopes or her love for her son. The actress describes her preparations for tackling such a physically and emotionally taxing performance as “a bit of a marathon.” Over the course of three weeks and in approximately ten scenes a day, she would play Leslie “in all sorts of different stages of intoxication,” and yet the Spirit Award nominee admits, “It was so in the bones of me by the time we got to doing it.” Even so, when production wrapped on a “freezing cold” Christmas Eve, she admits, “I was pretty broken.”

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“To Leslie” shot at the height of the pandemic in 2020, an experience that Riseborough describes as challenging but not without its silver linings. The actress was able to tap into the isolation of the early days of the pandemic for her performance. On set, she recalls, “I was surrounded by people constantly — in a way that she [Leslie] would be in a bar — and totally alone… It felt deeply lonely to be in a crowded room and really unable to have any intimacy.” Even so, the production managed to “provide loads of jobs” at a critical time, and thanks to a “brilliant” COVID team they managed to avoid even a single case while shooting.

Reflecting on the heart of “To Leslie,” Riseborough draws upon one scene in particular. After returning to her hometown, an intoxicated Leslie returns to the house she once shared with her young son, where she had “beautiful Christmases.” “What makes the film worth making and beautiful is that Ryan was able to express… the love for her son and the memories” through his screenplay, muses the actress, adding, “We think about saying things to those that we love all the time, don’t we? But we don’t necessarily always voice them.”

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